Interface patterns: "Coordinates, measurements"

"Coordinates, measurements" describes a pattern commonly used when representing measured data to humans.  Presenting measurements associated with coordinates on a graph helps people intuitively grasp complex sets of spatial data.  Graphs can be as simple as the timeline of last night's party or as complex as a three dimensional map of asteroids less than a light year away.

"iSPOTS" represents wireless devices as geographical points on a map of the campus.  The exhibit will be open until January 13, 2006.  Study hall is less often desirable when there's a comfy couch at the coffee shop next door.  Data collected will influence how student services money is spent.

"Simcity" represents urban health indicators such as "traffic congestion" and "police coverage" as spots of colors on a map of the city.  Recurring congestion in a downtown area indicated that it was time to consider replacing a high-rise office building with a park (or build a light rail).  This visualization could identify local or city-wide issues quickly and clearly.

"Moodteller" represents the self-described "mood" of LiveJournal's recent posts as line graphs.  Their predictions of "happy" have are very accurate, with minor fluctuations.  Predictions of "horny" are less accurate.  Those nervous about social interaction should meet with others for breakfast, when they're less likely to feel anxious.

"Ridefinder" represents the position of taxicabs in various cities as waypoints on an interactive map.  The taxi parking area at the Caltrain station is popular when the trains are running.  Combined with location data from users taxi drivers could more effectively locate passengers scattered throughout the city.

"Bio Mapping" represents the strength of galvanic skin response measurements on a map of a city.  Present a "mood" poll to citizens at high-response locales.  Social activitsts should select locations where emotions run high for maximal effect.  Thought police could investigate emotional outbursts resulting from criminal actions.

Profiting from free, online content

There isn't a compelling business argument today that would suggest that giving away our content is a good idea. (more)

What tangible benefit does the New York Times get in return for being a world news library to us? It's neat to be revered by all as a repository of information, but without a visible associated profit, I can certainly understand why it could be rejected by higher-ups. In the interests of simplifying things, I'm going to make a gross generalization of this and call it: "How do I make money while giving everything away for free?":

I'll award a $25 gift certificate to the person who emails me a screenshot of their Google toolbar having blocked the most pop-up ads. I ask only one thing: take the screenshot against the site (more)
The scourge of optic nerves everywhere can still be useful when done tactfully. Loud, garish ads can send people into seizures, drive people to distraction, inspire thousands to write code to block them — all for the sake of making a buck. I prefer not to build my business by preying on humans, so I don't recommend this route. That said, it is actually desired in certain places. Optimizing for advertising profit results in cults of people whose sole purpose is to see your business crumble to dust, so use it as sparingly as possible.
products sold through the Amazon Recommends service earn a 4% referral fee for Classic plans and 5% for Tiered plans. (more)
While I'm reading the content, there may be various items for sale that I'd be interested in, that are related to what's being talked about. If I'm reading a New York Times article about "quantum dots", I'd very much like to have a link to a manufacturer's product catalog for them; the commission off of those sales could enormous, and that commission could be structured with every business linked from the content. Prints of the content, links to artists' galleries (5-digit commissions possible, here); there's hundreds of ways to make a percentage, with just a bit of effort.
Entering your ZIP Code will provide you with a number of benefits, including articles, links, and attorney listings that are relevant for your state or locality. (more)
Provide a questions and answers service that handles incoming queries from the public, and work out special deals for libraries and schools and such so they can pay a sliding scale fee for research access. Put all those archives to good use, by hiring a staff of archivists and librarians and researchers, and then charge the world a fee to answer their questions. Many would rather pay to have a question answered (I've offered up to $50 before) than do the legwork themselves.
If you like TorrentFlux and you use it, please help support it. Thanks. Or buy something on my Wish List. (more)
Some people like to give back something in return for content; money, gifts, or comments. Be direct, but don't wave it around any more than is necessary to keep it in mind. If a user comes back more than once, or spends a few minutes on the site, show a donation blurb on the side of the page. One futuristic way to collect a donation that most users are unaware they have (and that most people do not need, but many do) is many seconds of computer work: complete computational tasks for a fee, using the processing power of the visitors. Resell visitors' processor time and show a counter on the page showing how much money they've made at your site, so that many users click on the long-term, "set this as my home page" button. I often walk away from my computer with web pages open, but intermittent visitors would still contribute a little.
Advanced Search allows you to generate millions of customized search reports from our database of 7.5 million credits. (more)
By providing a high-quality, open-content, profitable business model, the NYT becomes the shining star for all data repositories; a sort of profitable library, that gives away everything yet still makes money doing it. Prices may drop when competition begins, but do not be afraid: an experienced hand doing competent work is unlikely to fail, and I respect that far more than a low price.

The various angles described above (examples at best, themselves) can scale to any sort of content repository, be it an image gallery or a newspaper. As a blogger, I'd be thrilled to provide a Q&A service on my blog; the default price would be free, but if someone wants to paypal me for answer, that option will be available. Some blog comments are more valuable than the post they're attached to, an unusual side effect that I'm not sure was anticipated. Selling idle computational power has the most dramatic possible potential, as the only business successfully harnessing the idle processing power of the world is spamming.

Martin Nisenholtz, are you listening? I miss seeing the NYT clean, easy-to-read page layout whenever I search for news on current (or past) events. I miss the simple links, the easy-to-look-at URLs. You have so many possible ways to make money off of that archive without hiding its content, and by doing so, you allow the entire industry to hold back political, economical, and social research.

Please reconsider closing your archives by fees; for every person who pays a fee, a thousand are turned away, unable to afford it, and a growing number each day find their way in through partner links, BugMeNot, and so on. Some people will develop whatever tools they can to circumvent locks you place on content, now that they've seen what free content is like; if you choose a business model that offers content for free, then those same people will build tools with your content.

Continue reading "Profiting from free, online content" »

File folders: The carbon database filesystem

Walls of file cabinets can be found at any institution, containing thousands upon thousands of manually indexed documents. When someone's interested in using a folder within, they take it out, bring it to their desk, and work with it. Once done, it's put in a "to be filed" stack (or filed immediately). This is the most common way to structure a filesystem on today's computer as well: cabinets of folders of files, all carefully packed away on the wall of the office, waiting to be carefully taken out, worked with, and then carefully put back.

The translation of a carbon-based filing system to a silicon-based filesystem leaves out one key component: most people don't have someone to file their "to be filed" stack. The clearest sign of this lack is a directory filled with thousands of files, distinguishable by filename; the silicon brings is the ability to manage a stack of thousands of papers with very little effort, and all that's asked of the user is to choose a unique title.

Over time, some of those who initially have a folder with thousands of files will begin to create folders, for things that need to be lifted up out of the mess (urgent bills, closed cases, etc.). Given several years, many bookmark menus filled with links will end up carefully organized and sorted; people who start off putting every file in the "to be filed" folder make up simple ontologies ("Work", "Bills", "Family") and begin to refile their documents.

The analogy of a filing system to a database filesystem is a tough one: filing systems are generally subject to physical limits (you can't have two million pages in a single folder), and there's all sorts of features that don't exist outside of silicon. It's still an effective explanation for conveying what precisely this new "database filesystem" feature of the next OS upgrade is, though -- and many keep their documents (paper and digital) in a filing system and put documents in the "to be filed" folder when they're done.

Silicon brings a second advantage to the table: now people can work with tremendously large collections of objects with very little effort. Searching fifteen thousand songs on my laptop takes approximately one second; searching four billion web pages on Google takes approximately one second. This is where database filesystems can shine, and where the most confusion will lie. It only takes a few seconds to change the filing system; instead of hiring extra interns and spending a week reorganizing filing cabinets, the silicon shifts things around immediately.

In many commonly used filesystems, each folder is given a database of files and each file is given an assigned "name". Files may have other properties, but with rare exception these are not used to uniquely identify files; a file's "extension" is considered part of the "name". NTFS stands apart by bringing a second unique identifier to the filesystem (a two-column primary key, in database terms), but it's not commonly used or recognized by most.

As the filesystem becomes a collection of documents with a convenient selection of perspectives, the filing system metaphor becomes somewhat strained. It's not considered efficient to reorganize a collection of files every five minutes when it takes tremendous amounts of manpower and logistics, yet it goes unnoticed on computers everywhere, hundreds of times a day. A stronger analogy is necessary, to provide an easy path for harnessing the new possibilities.

Astronomers work with a collection of millions of objects every day, using different perspectives such as "color", "brightness", "position", or even "name". By aiming their telescope to a given perspective, they can precisely locate a star; if their calculations (or assumptions) are incorrect, then further work is required. Eventually they get it within the viewfinder, work with it for a while, and then move on to the next perspective.

Bridging the analogies, astronomers work with a single file folder filled with all the objects they have (the "universe"); then by sorting through different perspectives (such as "name") they find what they seek and work with it. Imagine a planetarium with all your documents broadcast on the ceiling in small print, and you need only a pair of binoculars and a direction to look to find anything in your collection. Unlike a filing system, astronomers have no need to re-file things when they're done, since the only thing that changed was their perspective.

A database filesystem, built properly, can allow the user to accrue every document in a single place, with the power to search through the collection efficiently. A document's "name" need not be unique, as long as the files with a given "name" are linked in some manner (say, revisions of a contract). With the ability to search through all the documents at once, filenames to some extent become moot; it's more effective for many to search for "Jan's resume" than to scroll through thousands of files sorted into directories (as evidenced by the recent popularity of Google, vs. Yahoo!). This is where the true power of a database filesystem lies.

Categorizing with spaces

Jon Udell's been paying a lot of attention recently to categorizing XHTML elements. Two of his readers suggested that he use the class attribute, delimiting the categories (if necessary) with spaces; this is also valid CSS. I'm in favor of it as well, as it has worked well for me in two other circumstances.

At, I keep a notebook of interesting links. Each link has several pieces of metadata; of interest is the tags field. The content of this field is a space-delimited list of categories, so to speak; a blog post about Google's IPO would be assigned "blog business", while a paper about graphing social dynamics would get "science social math". It's worked out very well for me, so far; I can find things easily enough by selecting individual tags, though more complex slices of the data aren't provided.

With the release of iTunes 4.2, a new field was added: grouping. At first, it was thought of as a similar sort of categorization field as the tags field: a space-delimited list of single-word categories. It turns out, however, that Apple has other plans for this field. While this puts somewhat of a damper on efforts to sort through music easily, the comments field can be used instead.

Failure to communicate

A growing segment of the technologically-enabled population is developing what I would best describe as a "derision" towards those who are not technically competent, for whatever reason. This sentiment is immediately apparent in the technical support industry, but I've seen it from peers who've never been formally introduced to tech support as well.

The common factor in the derision appears to be a result of differences between the two groups of people involved: those who feel they have invested much time in competence, and those who they feel have not. Over time, repeated communication failures left unaddressed appear to result in a build-up of resentment towards one (or, more often, both) parties.

One of the clearest examples of this can be found in comics that focus on these conflicts, such as Dilbert, Userfriendly, or w00t; in each, one can find the viewpoint of the "geeks" trying (and commonly failing) to communicate with the "newbies" — often with disastrous results. One can draw parallels to the similarly frustrating interactions between management and employees, as well; the stress of communication failures doesn't seem to be limited to outside interactions.

Standing guard at the far extreme of this reaction is the "Bastard Operator From Hell" series. For many years the saga has enchanted those who have been burned by IT work; at the core of all the angst-laced stories is the story of someone who used to try until it was hopeless, but now has turned to the dark side. Many techs wish they could do some of the things in the stories to their users, even in a humorous, non-lethal manner.

Some efforts exist to counter this trend; the perl-beginners mailing list handles a steady flow of traffic in polite Q&A with novice users; it's worked out wonderfully, thanks to Casey's efforts. Other beginner outreach efforts surely exist as well.

I'm not sure how to stem this tide of bitterness towards others; perhaps including social interaction training with computer training? It's a tough call, and I don't have the information to make it. Comments welcome; specific incidences of kindness would be nice to know about.

Right of passage

During last night's game of Monopoly, I introduced a new twist into the game: right of passage. Trading properties with other players always results in a hotel war, so I tried a new twist: instead of asking for large amounts of cash or trying to execute an imbalanced trade, I requested mutual right of passage: that is, neither of us pays the full rent on the property being traded; instead, only minimum rent will be charged.

It worked out spectacularly. The other player got a complete set, I had passage to one of the three hotels, and the game continued. As time passed, we both had several chances to exercise the new agreement. Near the end, I escaped a loss by landing on a space that couldn't charge me; while I lost, it was an unexpected reprieve.

The dynamic of last night's game was changed rather distinctly by the introduction of a new trade agreement. Give it a shot, the next time you find yourself playing Monopoly, and tell me how it goes. I'd love to hear about other variations out there, as well; the game's been around for a good chunk of a century, so there's probably a lot.

Subtle Times at Floating Atoll

Recently, I've noticed more flirting than usual from the girls I interact with in my daily life; standing at the bike rack, working at the coffee shop, playing pool at the bar; I'm rather unaccustomed to the attention. It seems to be unrelated to my physical appearance, or at least the parts of it that I can change (haircut and clothes); I surmise, then, that I've started broadcasting some sort of "low-key" signal expressing interest.

It could be the other way around, though; I may have just recently learned how to interpret some "low-key" signal that I'm not aware of, such that it seems that now everyone's flirting with me; maybe they already were, and I just couldn't tell. Maybe it's both.

I think that successful low-key flirting requires both parties to actively work towards communication, even if the total conversation consists of eye contact on your way out the door. It's hard to say, but I suspect that it's similar to how your olfactory sense works: every nerve (person) in your nose (life) reacts differently to a given smell (interaction), and it's up to your brain to somehow make some sense of those reports and react appropriately.

Each time you interact with someone you're attracted to, dedicate a few seconds of thought (not too much) to the interaction. Don't worry about extracting useful conclusions from it, just think back to the interaction, compare it to other interactions, and then get on with whatever you're doing. Occasionally you'll know for sure that someone was attracted to you — and as you think back, you might suddenly realize that an interaction you thought was friendly was actually a flirt.

Most social groups have some forum where discussion about interactions is accepted; stereotypically, girls go the bathroom and guys go the bar. Over time, each person assembles in their mind some subconscious compendium of low-key signs and probable meanings; sharing situations with others allows this to happen much more effectively, as you can air several opinions about any given situation. That's at the core of my current social interaction theory: first, interactions; second, interpretation; third, comparison.

Continue reading "Subtle Times at Floating Atoll" »

We can help you hear the voices.

It's just having an audio connection open with the other person as you both go about doing whatever you were doing, a persistent phone call, if you will.

This is nice between two people, sure, but what happens when we move #JoiIto to a system like this? How noisy would it be? How would it scale? And is there a way to do it that would work for Windows, Mac and Linux?

Grant, Joi, and John are all discussing something that's existed in the sci-fi and military circles for a much longer time: continuous audio communication. Starship Troopers makes a perfect example; a swarm of troopers, all linked to their commanders at any time they wish. A primary protagonist in the novel Xenocide exists only through her expression of self via electronic mediums -- occasionally visual, but primarily aural.

We're on the cusp of changing the way humans communicate forever. More and more people have discovered the power of instant messaging, as texting takes off overseas and all major operating systems ship messenger clients. The only remaining limit to this always-on connection has been the social ramifications of being connected: the technological warts on your skull.

With the rise in popularity of Star Trek (and science fiction in general), a growing number of people have been exposed to the concept of machine augmentation. In the books and in the movies there's cyborgs; people who, for one reason or another, are augmented with (or replaced entirely by) machines. For those who see technology as a plague, this is one of the worst nightmares: augmented humans.

Cell phones have introduced a completely different force into motion, the power of large groups with effective communication. The ability to be connected by audio to anyone in the world is coming into reach, slowly. A major forward jump towards this occured when cell phones began to saturate the teenage market, thanks in part to their early adopter, computer-friendly parents.

Such a jump will occur with the advent of computer-driven headsets. Using low-power wireless chips (and, if desired, certain blue-sky power sources) a human being can be put in touch with a computer, any time of day or not. Most people are accustomed to the computer being a telephone - so I'd like to introduce headset "party lines".

If you're interested in talking to whoever's in range of your wireless, flick a switch; now you've got an automatic party line, joined by anyone else who's in range. While the potential for abuse in public could be strong, the ripples would make a wonderful complement to instant messenging.

Texting could be turned into a permanent audio channel into someone's ear, providing a Flash website that channels the users' microphones straight into your ear - adjusted for volume and filtered, of course. With an aural voicemail-like interface, messages can be replied to, ignored, deleted, etc.

One unexpected change comes from the direction of IRC: open public spheres of communication. You must choose to join in, and you can leave at any time; conversation occurs whenever it will. The need to respond is somehow absent; those who lack the ability to find a comfortable silence may have much better luck using IRC. It's pretty neat stuff, and I'd like to channel it directly into my ear.

Unfortunately, I can't spend all of my time walking around muttering an audio commentary of my life - even with a headset. While fun, it would become distracting. In the interests of keeping the conversation lively, though, I'd be happy to stream a video feed from the earpiece; a small camera would be easy to merge with most headsets.

In the end, my goal is simple: I'd like to bring anyone who's willing to participate into the videoconference I'm holding with the world. It's a live performance; y'all are invited.

A thousand monkeys filtering advertising

A common thread between the most effective forms of online advertising is the introduction of a hyperlink to a targeted user. In this respect, there is no difference between Google text ads, Orbitz pop-ups, and DoubleClick banner ads: for the advertisement to be effect, the viewer must follow a link.

The browser market is ripe for plugin that, like Vipul's Razor, harnesses the efforts of many humans to identify and block unwanted advertisements. Users have proven with the SpamNet that they are willing to flag spam for the greater good, as long as it serves them as well; browsers should provide a mechanism for them to do so. Once the browser detects a community-reported ad, it can automatically obscure it – or remove it completely.

This solution is in no way limited to banner ads. When a blog comment is identified by the community as spam, it can be hidden from view on all participating sites. When instant messenger spam is identified, it can be filtered before it ever reaches the client. When an RSS article is identified as an advertisement, it can be filtered by the reader before ever seeing the light of day.

As these systems are implemented (and linked together), mass advertising becomes less cost-effective — the less customized the advertisement, the sooner it'll be tagged by the community; the more customized the advertisement must be, the more expensive it is to produce. Since advertising can't succeed when costs outweigh income, at a certain critical point they'll start losing money on the ads. That's considered a "win" in my book.

Link: Blueblog wonders: "can I live in a spam free world?".

Link: Kalsey writes the comment spam manifesto; I support it fully.

Link: Kalsey's written about distributed comment spam blocking as well, and I never even realized. Must read.

Note: This'd be useful for preventing wiki link spam, as well; when someone tries to introduce a link that's believed to be advertising by the community, the change could be delayed pending approval — or rejected outright.

Driving away customers with inefficiency.

Forty-five minutes at my local Kinko's has left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Even with the help of the friendly staff, I was unable to accomplish one simple goal: get a digital scan of my student photo identification onto my laptop. Stopped at every turn by limitations of their operating system as configured, the only immediately alternative was to spend five times as much money to get my data. My card was refunded for my time, and I'm taking my business to somewhere that can be of actual service: a friend with a scanner, for free.

Things started off well. I put my debit card into their machine, logged onto the computer (after accepting a ten-page terms of service agreement), and spent the first minute locating and opening Photoshop. Two more minutes were spent working around their misconfigured scanner drivers. Another minute to do the actual scanning, and I have (2) three megabyte files. Now the fun starts.

When I logged in, I presumed that their toolset of software would include applications for sending files to remote fileservers, a feature corporate types often require from their network administrators. In this, I was wrong: Kinko's does not provide functionality through their Macintosh installations to upload files to the Internet.

After logging out to the consider the situation, I realized that the web browser could be (ab)used as a file transfer agent. As I attached my laptop to the Ethernet connection one cubicle away, it occured to me to try file sharing from the PowerBook (since OS 9 should be able to talk to OS X). Unfortunately, this is not the case: my attempts to see the laptop's file sharing from their workstation failed, even with AppleTalk enabled.

I spent thirty minutes (!) on IRC, discussing both my dissatisfaction with Kinko's and possible solutions to the problem with several groups of people (altogether, about two hundred people were present to hear my complaints). Several solutions presented themselves during this time, none of which were viable or cost effective:

  • Purchase a USB dongle hard drive
  • Email the files (somehow) to Kinko's at $10 per CD
  • Use a webmail interface to upload the files (too large)
  • Use a file upload form to get the files to a webserver (requires access to a public webserver)
  • Print the scans (print.. scans?)
  • Burn them on a CD (can't burn CDs at the workstation)
  • Buy and save them to a Zip disk (I have no Zip drive)

The careful application of money, or the forethought to carry a pile of spare connectivity cables, would probably have saved me much of this experience. In a business such as Kinko's, where customer service is key, neither of those should be a prerequisite to use their facilities; if I had chosen to apply such forethought to my spur-of-the-moment Kinko's attempt, I would have gone with a friend's scanner instead.

So, all in all, forty-five minutes of my lunch hour wasted. This is completely unacceptable, for what should have been five minutes at 20 cents a minute. Thank you for trying, Kinko's; I'll call on a friend next time instead.

Link: Chuq Von Rospach points out that this is a very one-sided story; I concur. I recommend reading his counterpoint to this post; it's the grain of salt I didn't include.

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